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What would YOU do?

Gap's CEO is right. In a recent Wall Street Journal story, Gap's CEO, Sonia Syngal, said fashion is an art AND a science, a right, and a left-brain skill. And therein lies the problem: it's a rare skill not found in the larger fashion businesses that for decades used large merchandise planning systems to decide their buy, only to be disrupted, out-category-killed by Amazon, which can run 200 a/b tests per minute to learn what will sell.

Running a business that's art & science means you lead the market, not follow it. You hear its whispers. You look at art and music for clues. You run print campaigns evocative of Richard Avedon when the mass market doesn’t even know who Richard Avedon is…they just know the campaign “feels” right. You produce a Khaki swing campaign when no consumer ever said, “use swing music to promote khakis”. It’s knowing who you are, and therefore knowing that if colored capris dominate the men’s assortment, your business will shrink. It’s knowing counter-intuitively that pitching the hot pink trench, inspiring thousands of editorial calendars, but making only 1 pink trench for every 1000 beige trenches is how you build a fashion empire. That’s the thing, consumers yearn to be part of a tribe and use dress to signal tribal affiliations. Running a business that’s part art and science requires having a deep understanding of a tribe's aspirations and thus knowing that “For Every Generation” is not an aspirational campaign for consumers, but for company employees -- and therefore, a dud. It means standing for a category of goods at the forefront of a fundamental shift in consumer behavior. Remember how Banana Republic stood for “I’ve-Arrived-Business-Casual” when every company was moving to business casual? It would be standing for aspirational comfy casual when we’re all stuck working from home. But Athleta doesn't own that category the way Banana Republic owned business casual.

Does the new CEO have that right and left-brain skill she thinks the business needs? That remains to be seen. A deal with Kanye just feels like a laggard, left-brain decision, and my right-brain tells me that they will have to remake Kanye to make that deal work. But hindsight is so 2020. IMHO, Gap's best bet may be to sell their flagship or Old Navy to Amazon -- so they can invest in Athleta to capitalize on wfh casual. And guess who’s CMO of Amazon and used to run their fashion business? A former Old Navy executive.


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